Authors: Charity Pineiro
Connie had warned him that they would be eating, talking, and then eventually eating again. So far Christmas Eve had been exactly that. A long palette-pleasing culinary experience. Seated next to Carmen, with Connie and her newlywed husband Victor across from them, they had started with an assortment of cold seafood appetizers and had now progressed to the main dish of a roasted pork leg with a variety of side dishes.
Carmen had passed him the plates that went around the table family-style, helping him to choose things he had never even heard of before.
, an extra starchy root kind of like a potato, but seasoned with the bite of citrus, garlic, and onions sautéed in olive oil. The rice he had been familiar with, but the black beans served over it were interesting and earthy, like the people with whom he was sharing the meal.
“What’s this?” he asked as Carmen passed him another dish.
“These are fried ripe plantains. They’re very sweet. Connie has the fried green plantains. The
,” she replied and motioned across the way. “They’re hard and more like a vegetable that way. Try them with some of the sauce in front of you.”
Paul leaned forward and picked up the gravy boat. In it were some finely sliced onions, more garlic, olive oil, and citrus. He took a little of each of the plantains, listening to Carmen’s suggestion. The result was delicious and he nodded, murmuring his approval.
The main entree was the roast leg of pork, marinated with a heady mix of spices and citrus. This was the heavenly odor he had smelled at the front door and his mouth watered as Carmen forked some of the meat onto his plate. He dug in afterwards and was rewarded with a delicious meld of flavors and the tenderness of the succulent pork.
“Oh, man. Speedy, this is absolutely delicious,” he said with a groan and a smile.
Connie smiled. “Glad you like it, Paul.”
“She doesn’t like to be called, Speedy,” Carmen interjected, her voice tight.
Paul looked at her and it was clear she was quite angry. “Excuse me?”
“I don’t like it when you call me Speedy,” Connie replied calmly from across the way and Paul sensed she was trying to head off an argument.
“I’m sorry, Connie. He’s such a cute, little Spanish–”
Carmen jumped in. “He’s not Spanish, he’s Mexican. And they’re a great group of people, but we’re not Mexican. We’re Cuban,” she railed at him, her dark eyes serious.
Paul put up his hands in defense. “I didn’t mean any offense.”
“And on top of that,” Carmen said and then continued. “That cartoon often has a number of negative ethnic stereotypes.”
Paul leaned back, surprised not just by the vehemence of her outburst, but the sincerity of it. He glanced across at Connie, noted the blush on her face, and wondered if it was on account of her sister’s outburst on her behalf. Still, he wanted to clarify things, especially since the other end of the table had heard part of the argument and was now staring his way, waiting for his reply.
“I’m sorry, Connie. Really. I called you Speedy in part due to the ignorance your sister has been so kind to point out to me.” He glanced at Carmen and was surprised to see she appeared to be chagrined by the attention she had prompted. “But I also called you that because I admire all that you can do, even though you’re a pint-sized little thing. I won’t use that name again.”
Connie started and stammered for a second. “Well, thanks. I think.” She peered at her sister. “Carmen, don’t you think–”
“I owe Mr. Stone an apology? I’m sorry,” she replied swiftly, but he could see she was still upset.
Paul glanced around the table, where fifteen or more people were crammed into an area that in his house would have seated no more than eight. Family and friends were nodding, whispering to themselves, but he could see they were smiling and that the moment of unease had passed. Across from him, Connie had resumed conversation with her husband and as Victor leaned close and likewise whispered something in Connie’s ear, she blushed. She laid a hand on Victor’s arm and Paul caught a quick glimpse of the flare of desire in her warm gaze. He turned away, not wanting to intrude further.
“They’re amazing,” he heard with a sigh beside him and glanced at Carmen, who had apparently seen the moment also.
Carmen regretted that she had let the comment slip as Paul looked at her. The last thing she wanted was to engage this man in conversation, especially since he seemed to push all her buttons without even trying.
“She loves him a great deal, doesn’t she?” he questioned.
There was a trace of longing, loneliness even, in his eyes which surprised her. “They were made for each other, although they’ve had their ups and downs.”
He nodded. “I remember. Your sister was in the dumps. I called her Grumpy, then. Was that all right?” he asked, raising one eyebrow in question. “You’re not going to get upset because Connie’s just petite and not a dwarf or anything like that, are you?” he teased.
Warmth traveled across her cheeks, prompted by both embarrassment and anger. “Do you always manage to antagonize everyone you meet?”
He grinned then, and the smile transformed his face, chasing away the sadness she thought she had noticed earlier. “Only the ones I like.”
He was now all confident, all male, and it made her heart speed a little and warmed parts of her she didn’t necessarily want warmed. “Don’t count me in that very elite group.”
Paul surprised her by laughing. “God, you are quick. You’re as smart as your sister,” he replied, shocking her. She had never doubted her own intelligence, but no one had ever compared her to Connie.
“I can hold my own,” she confessed.
“I bet you can, darlin’. So do you want to tell me why you dislike me so much?” he asked, leaning close.
Carmen glanced around for someone to save her from answering, but it seemed everyone else was engrossed in conversation and oblivious to the undercurrents between the two of them. It was eerie that with all these people and activity, everything else seemed to go away with him next to her. She looked at him and raised her chin a defiant notch. “Let’s start with you breaking my sister’s arm.”
He had the good grace to flush. “That was an accident that shouldn’t have happened. It never occurred to me it would, although I had intended to knock her ass flat on that mat if I could.”
She smiled and zeroed in for the kill. “From the way I heard it, it was someone else’s ass that bit the dust.”
Paul smiled dangerously, leaning even closer. “Darlin’. Your sister nearly ruined the family jewels if it will make you happy to hear that.”
She couldn’t contain herself and a giggle erupted. “You are something else,” she had to admit, amazed he would confess that her slight petite sister had nearly unmanned him.
“Well, I’m glad you think so. You’ve just joined that elite group ’cause I think you might just like me a little bit.”
She turned and only then realized just how close they had gotten. His breath fanned her lips and for a traitorous moment, she wanted to taste them and moved closer. But as she looked up, he seemed to know it, and she pulled away, avoiding the flare of interest in his emerald eyes. “I’ve got to go help clean up,” she said and rose, taking his empty plate and hers, and heading into the kitchen.
Paul watched her walk away and when he returned his attention to the table, he realized Connie was gazing at him intently. “She’s very interesting,” he offered by way of explanation.
Connie’s eyes narrowed as she considered him, but then she grinned, waggled a finger at him as she stood also and began gathering empty plates. “Remember, Stone. I’ve got a gun and I know how to use it.”
He laughed and shook his head. From across the table, Connie’s husband rose, picked up a few more plates and said, “They’re a handful, but worth it.”
Paul thought of the lovely, intelligent, but prickly Carmen and smiled. “Yep, Victor. I think you might just be right.”
It was bedlam inside the kitchen, Paul decided. The women bustled about, putting away food, preparing plates for washing since to his surprise there was no dishwasher in the small confines of the kitchen. He placed the empty dishes on the counter and asked Connie’s mom if he could help out.
“No, thank you. You are a guest. Please go and sit, or go for a walk with the men. We’ll bring out the dessert in a little while,” she offered generously.
Paul hesitated. Victor was donning an apron, a flowered, ruffled little thing which barely covered the broad plains of his chest. When Victor glanced up, caught his amused grin, the other man laughed. “Run while you’re still a free man, Paul. I’m doing this to avoid the doghouse.”
Victor held up his hands then like the surgeon that he was and faked a serious face. “Nurse, my gloves please.”
Carmen gently tossed the latex gloves in his face, then relented and slipped them on Victor’s hands, mimicking the actions of a scrub nurse. “I get double time on holidays,” she teased her boss, who merely grimaced and shook his head.
“I get no respect,” he mumbled and headed to the sink to wash.
A swell of longing washed over Paul. There was no doubt about the love here. As a child he had envied families like this, the Cosbys of the world. He had certainly never had anything remotely similar while growing up nor to this day. That was why he was here now, thanks to the generosity of Connie. In a moment of epiphany, he decided he wasn’t going to let this moment pass. For tonight, on this night when miracles were supposed to happen, he would be part of this loving, caring family.
Paul slipped off his sport jacket, laid it over the back of the chair, and grabbed another equally
apron. He slipped it on, folded back the sleeves of his shirt, and joined Victor at the sink. “I’ll dry,” he stated and Victor looked at him and grinned.
“I’m jealous. You look better in that thing than I do. It must be true then,” he said, shaking his head and passing Paul a dripping dish.
“What’s that?” Paul asked, surprised by the instant sense of camaraderie he felt with this man.
“Blondes do have more fun.”
Both men laughed together, then continued washing and drying with amiable chatter about their jobs, Connie, and Carmen.
They were almost finished when Carmen approached, dangling a small piece of something, Paul couldn’t tell what, between her fingers.
“Cook’s treat,” she said and offered the piece to Victor.
Victor shook his head and motioned in Paul’s direction. “Let the
try it,” he said, and Paul knew he was teasing.
Carmen glanced at him, hesitating. Finally she took the step closer to Paul and held up the dark brown piece of what looked like meat. He leaned down and she brought it to his lips, but barely, forcing him to make the last final move.
He grabbed hold of her wrist to hold her hand steady and placed his lips around the meat. Figuring he had no choice, or at least hoping that was the way it seemed, he continued to hold her hand and licked the fingers which had held the tasty, somewhat crunchy piece of meat. “Delicious.”
Carmen’s fingers tingled where his lips had touched her. Her wrist burned from the heat of his grasp. “Thanks. It’s called a
. It’s the skin off the pork leg.”
She had hoped to shock his sensibilities, but he merely grinned and whispered in low tones, “I wasn’t talking about the pork.”
Heat raced up her throat and across her cheeks. She pulled her hand away and was about to launch a scathing retort when her mother came by, advising it was time for dessert. Carmen bit her tongue, but glared at him as he motioned for her to precede him back into the dining room.
He held the chair out for her and then sat. Carmen accepted the plate of pastries Victor passed to her and held it out to Paul. He hesitated, clearly unfamiliar with the Cuban sweets, and Carmen relented and helped him select a few, but with a little surprise thrown in. “Try this one first.” She pointed to a conical, wet-looking pastry he had placed on his plate.
Paul hesitated, looked at her and then down at the confection, a befuddled look on his face.
Carmen huffed, grabbed his fork, cut off a piece, and brought it to his lips. He grinned, winked at her, and took the pastry into his mouth. A second later he grimaced, swallowed, and reached for his glass of water, nearly draining it. “What was that?”
She laughed and turned her attention to her own plate. “It’s a cake soaked with rum, honey, and sugar.” And one for which she had never acquired a taste.
“Ah, I get it,” she heard him reply. “I do something to tease you and you put a bug in my sandwich to get even, right?”
She closed her eyes, wanting to die at his analysis of their behavior and how close to truth it was. They were acting like they were in grade school and didn’t quite know how to deal with that first blush of interest in the opposite sex. She looked down at her plate and mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
“Mmm, I didn’t quite hear that.” He moved his hand, cupped her chin, and applied gentle pressure to bring her head around until she faced him. “Care to repeat that, again, maybe a little louder?”
His thumb traced the small dimple in her chin and he shifted his hand to rub it across her cheek. “All right, then. Would you be willing to declare a truce?” he said softly.
Her skin burned where he touched, making her mouth dry, and her chest grow too tight. It wasn’t like her to be unnerved so easily, so quickly. Especially by a man she barely knew and that was frightening. Maybe she had sensed that attraction early on, from the moment he had walked in through the door. And maybe that was why she had been trying to keep him at arm’s length. A truce meant she would have to lower those barriers, just a little.
She glanced across the table at her sister and Victor, who were clear examples of where things could lead if one took a chance sometimes and had a little faith. She returned to gaze at the man sitting beside her, this very handsome, very blond Anglo man who had tried so hard to be nice tonight and nodded, held out her hand.
“Truce,” she replied softly and was rewarded by his full, unrestrained smile, and the hint of promise in his gaze.
The remainder of the night passed all too quickly and Carmen wondered how it was possible to feel like a child again, waiting for Santa to come.
After dessert they cleaned up, laid out finger sandwiches and other appetizers for those who were lingering. In their small living room they had set aside a tiny square and her parents slipped on some albums of old Cuban classics to dance. Her parents swept into each other’s arms and executed the paces of the music effortlessly. Soon, Connie and Victor joined them and Carmen sighed, happy at the clear joy and love on her sister’s face as she danced with her husband of only a few months.
“Care to show me how it’s done,” Paul asked as he came to stand next to her.
Carmen held out her hand and he stepped close. She helped him position his hands, one on her waist, the other held in hers. The song playing was a
, one of the traditional Cuban styles of music. One of the slower styles as well luckily. She counted out the steps for him, moving her feet slowly.
Paul tried to follow, his head bent down, intently following her count and movements, but it was clear after a few minutes it was a lost cause. He groaned and glanced at her in chagrin. “Should I have warned you that I have two left feet?”
Carmen laughed and relented. She laid her hands along his shoulders, pulled him closer as the song ended and Connie switched over to her Ipod and a more modern, slower song. “I guess we’ll just have to do it the old fashioned American way,” she said and slipped into his arms, forcing him into a simple one-two shuffle.
Paul wasn’t going to argue. He held her close, but not too close in deference to her family, and swayed to the music, all the time hoping he wouldn’t step on her feet. She must have sensed the tension in his body for she softly whispered, “Relax. My toes can handle it.”
He took a deep breath and gave himself up to the feel of her hands on his shoulders and of her small waist beneath his fingers. With each sway of her hips, her muscles moved and he wondered what all those lovely curves looked like beneath the clothes. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead and he drove the image from his mind.
Regretfully the song ended and a fast-paced piece came on, one he knew he could never handle. He excused himself, wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and looked around, realizing for the first time he was the only one left. All the other family and friends had somehow departed without his noticing. A quick glance at his watch told him it was high time he left as well.
“I really should go,” he told her and was somewhat pleased with her momentary look of regret.
Carmen nodded and led him to her parents so he could offer his thanks for the night. “
,” he said slowly, the sounds uncertain on his lips, but she still gave him credit for the effort.
Her parents beamed and he smiled back, calling out to Connie, “Hey, Spee — Connie. I’ll see you on Tuesday. Thanks.”
Connie and Victor waved to him, clearly unwillingly to break out of each other’s arms for the goodbye.
“Take care, Paul. Merry Christmas,” Connie replied.
Paul smiled happily. “It might just be one after all,” he said, and shot Carmen a quick glance.
She walked him to the door and stepped outside with him. He turned to her as she stood on the porch, hugging herself to ward off the slight chill of the Miami night air. “I’m glad we called that truce,” he admitted, running a hand along her forearm.
Carmen almost hated to admit it, but she did as well. “I’m glad, too,” she finally said and stood there, feeling awkward with this man. Feeling as if she didn’t quite know what to do next, which was a first for her. There were very few times in her life when she had been as uncertain as tonight.
He peered down at her, still inches taller despite the fact she was standing on the porch. It was unsettling, all that masculinity waiting before her, expectant and just as hesitant, she realized. “I guess you should go. It was nice meeting you,” she offered and held out her hand in what she hoped would be a neutral gesture.
Paul smiled and glanced at her hand, then quickly back up to her face. He took hold of her hand, gave it a slow tug to draw her to the edge of the step, and Carmen stumbled on the uneven brick of the porch.
He brought his arms around her waist to catch her. They were hard and unyielding, like bands of iron. Slowly he shifted his head down, seemingly intent on one thing.
She raised her face hesitantly, eyes opened wide to watch as he did. But she was still uncertain and at the last minute, moved. Their noses bumped and he smiled, used the opportunity to rub his face across hers. His skin was soft, his beard non-existent as if he had shaved before coming over. She savored the caress, the hesitant brush of his lips which enticed and promised so much. Finally, thankfully, he moved his head that last fraction of the way, meeting her lips with his.
Carmen lingered on the edge as he gently moved his mouth against hers and she wanted more. She opened her mouth slightly, darting her tongue out quickly to taste the hard line of his lips.
Paul groaned at the first tentative swipe of her tongue and pulled away. It was too much, too fast. He was overwhelmed by it all. The whole unfamiliar family thing and the feel of this woman in his arms, too welcoming and too dangerous to the defenses he had erected over the years. Still, it wasn’t something he wanted to walk away from, not just yet.
“I’d like to see you again.” He continued to hold her and caressed her back beneath his hands.
She smiled shyly and moved her hands back and forth across his shoulders. “I’d like that, too.”
Paul grinned and a light-heartedness he hadn’t experienced in a long time burst through his body. “I’ll call you as soon as I know my schedule.”
Carmen nodded and hesitantly gave him a quick kiss on his cheek before stepping away and back into the house.
Paul managed to restrain himself from doing the little jump he wanted to and instead sauntered down the walk feeling like a new man.